Jan 23 8:00 PM

Sailors report illness after Fukushima mission — is it radiation-related?

Sailors scrub the external surfaces on the flight deck of the USS Ronald Reagan to remove potential radiation contamination on March 23, 2011.
Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Alexander Tidd/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

The tsunami that hit the coast of Japan on March 11, 2011 caused the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. In the days following the tsunami, reactors within the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant exploded and leaked radiation into the environment. The United States announced a relief effort led by the Navy – Operation Tomodachi – in which 70,000 Department of Defense-affiliated personnel contributed to providing humanitarian aid to those affected.

Now, three years later, some Navy personnel say they’re experiencing mysterious symptoms, including hemorrhaging and cancer. In some cases, their doctors can’t provide diagnoses and therefore cannot determine if the illnesses are radiation-related. Convinced their illnesses were caused by radiation exposure, 71 of these sailors are banding together in a lawsuit against the Tokyo Electric Power Company – or TEPCO – which operates the Fukushima power plant.

The U.S. government released a statement denying that radiation has caused these illnesses:

“After extensive environmental monitoring and analysis, it has been determined that none of the nearly 70,000 members of the [Department of Defense]-affiliated population … are known to have been exposed to radiation at levels associated with adverse medical conditions.”

Two sailors who are a part of the lawsuit shared their stories with Al Jazeera.

Mike Sebourn pictured while on assignment with the U.S. Navy in April 2011 at Misawa Air Base in Japan.
Mike Sebourn pictured while on assignment with the U.S. Navy in April 2011 at Misawa Air Base in Japan.
Michael Sebourn

Former U.S. Navy Officer Michael Sebourn

Senior Chief Michael Sebourn was assigned to investigate radiation levels in the air and on American military aircraft going in and out of Sendai and Fukushima in the weeks after the earthquake. After seeing at least 10 doctors and undergoing three MRIs and two ultrasounds, he still doesn’t know what’s wrong with him.

Since returning home, Sebourn says he very suddenly lost 50 to 60 percent of the power in the right side of his body. This shocked him when he walked into the gym one day and could only do his workout on his left side – he says his right side just didn’t work. Sebourn also says his right arm is now an inch-and-a-half shorter than his left when he flexes – another mystery. 

Michael Sebourn pictured during Operation Tomodachi, on assignment with the U.S. Navy in April 2011 at Misawa Air Base in Japan.
Michael Sebourn pictured during Operation Tomodachi, on assignment with the U.S. Navy in April 2011 at Misawa Air Base in Japan.
Michael Sebourn

 

 

"As for the people who are saying those levels weren’t very high, normal background radiation, I call bogus to that, because I was the man standing there in that city base on the ground with my [instrument] in the air taking the background levels. I know what the levels were. I know what the levels are supposed to be, and if you think 300 times higher than a normal day's radiation level is fine, than I don’t know what to tell you."

- Michael Sebourn

Michael Sebourn, at right, and a colleague pictured during Operation Tomodachi, while on assignment with the U.S. Navy in April 2011 at Misawa Air Base in Japan.
Michael Sebourn, at right, and a colleague pictured during Operation Tomodachi, while on assignment with the U.S. Navy in April 2011 at Misawa Air Base in Japan.
Michael Sebourn

 

“Right now we’re going through this lawsuit, we’re not trying to get rich. I could care less about getting any monetary returns. What I’m looking for in the suit is a medical fund, money put aside for a medical fund, some place for all 70,000 people — [Department of Defense] civilians, family members, service members that were exposed to this — that someday if they develop problems down the road that [are found to be] linked to radiation exposure, that they have someplace they can go [to be] seen and treated where it’s not going to be a financial burden on them — to make sure that we’re taken care of down the road when we need it.”

- Michael Sebourn

My body is falling apart.

Michael Sebourn

Former U.S. Navy officer

Steven Simmons pictured in Rockville, Md. on May 27, 2013. Simmons was the grand marshal of the Memorial Day parade.
Steven Simmons pictured in Rockville, Md. on May 27, 2013. Simmons was the grand marshal of the Memorial Day parade.
Steven Simmons

Former U.S. Navy Officer Steven Simmons

Administrative Officer Steven Simmons was on the USS Ronald Reagan during Operation Tomodachi. He says he and members of the crew drank the contaminated, desalinated sea water before a warning that it might contain radiation. Other sailors apparently cooked with the contaminated water, cleaned with it, and bathed in it.

Simmons suddenly lost 20 to 25 pounds, started running fevers, getting night sweats and tremors, and his lymph nodes started to swell. He can no longer use his legs and spends all of his time in a wheelchair. His weakness has traveled up to his core and arms, and the signals between his brain and his bladder have failed. He uses a catheter every four hours.

Steven Simmons pictured hiking the Stairway to Heaven while on a port visit to Hawaii in the summer of 2010.
Steven Simmons pictured hiking the Stairway to Heaven while on a port visit to Hawaii in the summer of 2010.
Steven Simmons

 

“I’m 36-years-old now and some of these other folks that are dealing with problems are much younger than I am. ... Some of these kids had thoughts of being pilots or what their dreams were. … That’s really my biggest concern. I’m not doing it for me. I’m doing it for them.”

- Steven Simmons

 

“At no point am I ever casting blame at the service or [the Department of Defense] or the U.S. government. ... My whole stance is that if they had information at a timely manner, things would’ve been done differently.”

- Steven Simmons

I don’t understand how you can place a ship the size of a carrier into a nuclear plume for over five hours, suck up contaminants into the water system of the ship, and expect there to be no harm whatsoever to the human life.

Steven Simmons

Former U.S. Navy officer

In this handout image provided by the U.S. Navy, Aviation Boatswain's Mate, 3rd Class Ashton Hemphill, scrubs the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan on March 23, 2011 at sea in the Pacific Ocean.
Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Alexander Tidd/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

Tune in to Al Jazeera America tonight at 10 ET/7 PT to learn more. Do you have a story to share? Tweet your pitch to our correspondent, Gianna Toboni.

Edited by Leslie Hart

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